The Messiah brought good news of God's way for people to be put right by the power of God. He warned us of two opposite dangers, Pharisaism or legalism on the one hand and Sadduceeism on the other (16:6, 11). These two parties in the Jerusalem religious establishment were normally enemies, but they ganged up together to have Jesus crucified by the Romans.
The Sadducees downplayed the supernatural. There was no resurrection or life after death, so that religion was mainly a matter for this life with little interest in the power of prayer or the Holy Spirit. Pharisees had no doubt about a resurrection and life after death, and they believed in God's miraculous intervention. They did not deny the work of the Holy Spirit, but this power was only for those who obeyed the law of Moses, which was set out in over 600 positive and negative prescriptions. When Jesus offered a way of freedom for ordinary people, the Pharisees knew that he was dismantling their carefully organized system of rules.
The modern equivalent of Pharisaism is legalism, which assumes that we are put right ("made right," wrongly translated "justified") by making rules and obeying them. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Galatians because the Christians there had begun living in the power of the Spirit and had reverted to legalism (Galatians 1:6-7; 3:1-5; 5:1). Paul's Epistle to the Romans is a fuller theological explanation of the good news of living by the power of God (see Romans: Paul and the Power of the Spirit).
23:1 Jesus is now teaching (Monday to Thursday in Holy Week) in the temple courts. A crowd has gathered together with his disciples.
23:2-3 The Pharisees and theologians of Jerusalem are the expounders of the law of Moses, and that is worthy of respect (see comments on 5:17-20). But the law must not be applied as they do because they observe it hypocritically (23:13, 23, 25, 27).
23:4 Hypocrisy is an inevitable part of legalism, because people who make rules for putting us right are themselves unable to solve their problems by their rules. What they succeed in doing is laying a huge burden of guilt on ordinary people who know they cannot live up to those standards. That is why Jesus offered us freedom for those who are "weary and heavy laden." His yoke is easy (11:28-30).
23:5 We should beware of those who stress religious externals. Instead of looking to the power of God to change them, legalists tend to look for the approval of others. The Jewish practice was to attach small leather boxes containing verses from the law on their left arm and forehead. They also had blue fringes woven in the border of their cloak. These were designed as reminders of God's law, but they easily became a means of ostentation.
23:6-8 Those who were recognized as teachers of the law and those who tried to be meticulous in its obedience were given special honor. This inevitably turned their attention from looking to the power of God to the praise of others.
23:9-10 They were also given titles which turned the attention of people to them rather than to the Messiah himself. It may be necessary to recognize certain functions in a congregation such as janitor, secretary, Sunday School teacher, choir director, presiding elder, preacher. But we are to beware of making the names of these functions into reasons for singling out some for special honor above others in the community.
23:11 Greatness is to be measured not be titles but by service (see notes on 20:25-28).
23:12 Jesus had taught the way of humility in the beatitudes (5:5). Now he adds that God has a way of toppling the proud (see Luke 14:7-11, 18:9-14).
23:13 Ordinary people can enter the Messianic kingdom by simple faith as they turn to the power of the Spirit to change them. The Pharisaic mass of burdensome rules only served to discourage them. And in some cases those who wanted to follow the Messiah were even put out of the synagogue (John 9:22; 12:42). Later in the churches of the Galatians Christians had been persuaded to go back from the freedom of life in the Spirit into legalism (Galatians 3:1-5).
23:14 This verse is omitted from the best manuscripts. But it is certainly true that the harsh treatment of widows, and the offering of long tedious prayers by religious people, can be reasons for hindering faith in the kingdom.
23:15 Legalists also engage in missionary work, but their converts are often characterized by hellish judgmentalism. Here, as in other cases in the Gospel, the word "hell" is a translation of the Greek word gehenna, which is a transliteration of ge hinnom, the valley of Hinnom, which was the stinking burning garbage dump for the city over the high south wall of Jerusalem (5:22, 29-30; 18:9; 23:33).
23:16-22 In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had taught that the word of members of the kingdom should be sufficient without oaths to support a statement (5:33-37). Here he makes a mockery of oath taking and rebukes the hypocrisy of those who said certain kinds of oath were not binding and so counted for nothing.
23:23-24 The Old Testament required the setting aside of a tithe or ten per cent of one's income for the needs of others (Leviticus 27:30-32; Numbers 18:24-28; Deuteronomy 12:6-17; 14:23-28; Amos 4:4; Malachi 3:8-10). Instead of the spirit and purpose of tithing, legalists made a great fuss of tithing the produce of their spice garden. As the prophet Micah explained, what was really needed was "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
The metaphor of a camel had been used to illustrate how hard it was for a rich person to enter the kingdom (19:24). Now Jesus uses a metaphor of fussiness about straining out gnats from one's milk and then swallowing a camel. The point is that legalism quickly focuses on minor matters of obedience and forgets the heart of loving God and loving one's neighbor (22:37-40).
23:25-26 Here our life is compared to a silver cup, and legalism tries to keep it clean and shining for others to see. But the contents are a mix of greed and selfishness. It is the heart that needs our attention (as in 5:21-48; 12:33-35; 15:16-20), and the Messiah is the physician who heals us from within (9:12-13).
23:27-28 Tombs were often whitewashed, but that did not change their contents. And hypocrisy is a concern for whitewashing the outward appearance instead of the heart.
23:29 Legalists like to put up monuments, and honor the history of good people in the past. They forget that the greatest prophets all sense their own frailty and imperfections as we do, and it is God who works in their heart to produce the good fruits of the Spirit.
23:30-31 Legalists also assume that they would not have shared in the bad treatment and murder of God's messengers.
23:32-33 The Pharisees of Jesus' day are about to fill up of God's wrath by killing the Messiah. Here again "hell" is a translation of gehenna (5:22, 29-30; 18:9; 23:33), and it does not refer to eternal damnation but to the awful end of Jerusalem and its religious establishment in AD 70. The wrath consequences were terrible (24:35-36), but we should not assume that all the members of the religious establishment who had Jesus crucified, all ended up in hell fire after their death.
23:34 As Jesus points out, God has throughout history kept sending prophets, wise persons (Proverbs 9:3-4; 22:17), teachers (see 13:52), and other messengers. And he will continue to do so.
23:35-36 Here Abel is the first person to die at the hand of Cain (Genesis 4:8) and Zechariah is the last of the Old Testament prophets to be killed (2 Chronicles 24:20-22). The cup of God's wrath slowly fills up with repeated acts of violence (as in 23:32; 1 Thessalonians 2:15). Eventually a time comes when God terminates a civilization or city in a cataclysmic overthrow. And in the case of Jerusalem the end will be in that generation (see 24:34).
23:37 Having recorded these terrible words of wrath upon the religious establishment of the city, Matthew concludes this section with Jesus' own longing to gather and welcome into the kingdom the people of that city (compare Paul's longing in Romans 9:1-3; 10:1).
23:38 The temple of Jerusalem which had been God's house is now "your house," and it will be destroyed.
23:39 These words of a psalm had already been sung as Jesus came into the city (21:9; Psalm 118:26). It will be used in the Eucharistic Prayer of all the ancient branches of the church, and in each of our communion services the Messiah promises to come and be present with his people (Revelation 3:20).